The Working With Podcast | Episode 45 | Waiting For and Next Actions Contexts

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In this week’s episode of the Working With Podcast, I answer a question about waiting for and next actions.

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Hello and welcome to episode 45 of my Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

In this week’s episode I have a GTD specific question, so for those of you not familiar with GTD, GTD stands for Getting Things Done and is a concept from a book written by David Allen. A great concept and a concept that underpins my whole productivity system. If you haven’t read the book, I strongly recommend you do. It will set you up on an amazing journey. 

Before we get started, in case you missed it, I published the 2018 version of my Email Productivity Mastery course last week. This course updates last years course with better audio quality, something that was really bothering me and I have also added a number of new lessons that include setup guides for Gmail and Outlook and a new folder called “reference” which I have included following feedback from students last year. It’s a great course and is currently on its early-bird discount. So, if you want to get your email under control and to start loving email, get yourself enrolled today. This is one course you will definitely not regret purchasing. 

Okay, let’s get on with this week’s show, so that means it’s time for me to hand you over to the Mystery Podcast Voice for this week’s question.

This week’s question comes from Dimitris. Dimitris asks: “Hi Carl, how do you use the next actions and waiting for contexts or labels?” 

Great question, Dimitris. Recently I have covered these in my Working With Todoist series of videos on YouTube, but I think a deeper explanation for those of you not using Todoist may help you get a better understanding of just how powerful these two contexts can be in your productivity system. 

Let us look at the waiting for context first as I think this one is probably the easiest to understand. I use the waiting for label for anything I need reminding about in the future that is dependent on something or someone else. So for example, if I order a new pair of shoes from my favourite bookmaker in the U.K.—I’ve always wanted to say that—they will send me a confirmation email which will include my shipping number and the link to the site where I can track my delivery. That email will be saved to my waiting for folder in my email app and a copy will be forwarded to Todoist. Now, the thing is, I don’t have to send it to Todoist, I do so because in Todoist I have a daily dashboard view, which includes all the things I am waiting for. By forwarding the email to Todoist, I can include it in my daily dashboard. 

Another example here would be if I send out an email to a group of people asking them all to send me a report on their weekly sales activity. Now this email could mean I will be waiting for ten or eleven people to reply. What I do here is the exact same thing. I add the email to my waiting for folder in my email app and I also send a copy of the email to Todoist. Now in Todoist, I have the ability to add notes and in there I can add the list of people I am waiting for a reply from and when someone replies I can cross off their names from the list. 

Of course, I could use my original email and the replies to do the same thing, but for me seeing a simple list is much easier than reading through different emails looking to see who replied. 

And that’s pretty much how I use the waiting for context every day. I should point out that the additional step of sending a copy to Todoist is not completely necessary. I only do so because I have my daily dashboard filter in Todoist that tells me what I have planned to do that day and what I am waiting for. I did a video on how I have my dashboard set up and I will put a link to that video in the show notes for those of you curious about it.

You can use the waiting for context for pretty much anything—things you bought online, things you have requested from colleagues or information you are waiting for. The only thing I would say though is remember to clear it out. I clean up my folders as part of my weekly review, trying to remember to clean things up every day can become a burden I don’t need. With email, it is easy because a reply to my original email will allow me to move the email to another place if I need to and in Todoist I can just complete the task. 

Now on to the next actions context. This one seems to cause a lot of confusion for people because technically, any task that needs doing is a next action right? Well, yes and no. If the task can be completed now, then yes. But if the task is dependant on another task being completed first then no. For example, if I have two tasks inside a “repaint the living room” project, one task says “ask partner to decide on new colour” and another task says “buy paint”, then until you know what colour paint to buy you cannot go out and buy the paint. So the next action can only apply to “ask partner to decide on new colour”. In it’s simplest form that’s how the next action label works. 

However, there are numerous difficulties if you apply the next action context to all tasks you could theoretically complete right now, one of which is the size of the list. It would likely become a huge list of tasks and whenever you have a huge list of tasks you become numb to it and overwhelmed. Once that happens the list becomes useless. You won’t look at it. 

So, a better way to handle this list is to only add one task from each of your active projects as your next action. Once you complete that task you can either add the next actions label to the very next task you need to do, or you can do it when you do your weekly review. It would all depend on when the project needs completing by. 

Now, you next actions context is only useful to you if you are reviewing it regularly. I review mine every day. There are two reasons for this. The first is because I frequently get all my objective and focus tasks completed early. That’s largely because I am an early riser. I usually have an hour or two at the end of my working day to work on other things. So I open up my next actions context and begin at the top and do as many tasks as I can. Usually, it’s only two or three, but that’s two or three project tasks that I would not have thought about doing had I not looked at my next actions context. The second reason is so I can see what projects are coming due. My projects are ordered in the deadline order. So the project at the top of my project list has the nearest deadline and the project at the bottom has the farthest away deadline. This means my next actions list orders my tasks by project order so the tasks at the top have the closest deadline. This is likely to be dependant on which to-do list manager you are using. But if you can try to make sure tasks are ordered by deadline. 

When you start using your next actions context diligently, you will find you no longer need to date all your tasks. This has the benefit that only tasks that must be completed on a specific day will have a date attached to it. All other tasks, tasks you would like to complete, but it would not be a problem if you didn’t, don’t need a date. You will see them if you are reviewing your next actions list every day. 

Another benefit of the next actions context is when you do your planning at the end of the day. You have a ready prepared list from which to select tasks to do the next day. These, of course, will be based on how busy your schedule is for the day. All you need to do is add the next day’s date to the tasks you want to complete and you can be safe in the knowledge that tasks that need doing are getting done when they need to be done. 

So the final part of all this is when do you make sure the next action context is added to your tasks. Well, that really is up to you. I personally, do it on a Sunday when I do my weekly review. Because I review everything I know what projects need a lot of focus and I know what needs to be done the next week. I can, therefore, make sure I am working on the things that need to be worked on. As I complete tasks in individual projects, I can add the next actions context when I have finished working on that project for the day. For me, this has never been a problem. It takes less than 2 seconds to add the context. Seriously, that should never be a concern for you. 

If you are doing your weekly reviews, are focused on what’s important and know where you are with your projects using the waiting for and next actions context can be a real boost for you. It allows you to relax and be less stressed because you know what needs doing next and by when. Your daily to-do lists are shorter and this prevents you from feeling overwhelmed and becoming numb to your list. But… It does mean you are going to have to trust your system and that means sticking with one app, one system and trusting yourself that you will spend the necessary time each day to plan and maintain things. 

Good luck and thank you, Dimitris, for your question. I have to admit there have been a few questions similar to this recently and I hope this episode has helped you to better understand how waiting for and next actions work. 

It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.